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December 31, 2004
A first-person account
Posted by Teresa at 07:00 PM * 18 comments

From Metafilter, Sarah’s friend Dave describes what it was like when the waves hit:

I was in my office at the narrowest part of the island (20 meters across) at the northern end with the sand bank, when I heard a strange bump against the wall outside my office, I ran down the hall to find water streaming in under the door and I could barely open it. As I got it open my eyes popped out of my head when I saw the sea was not only level with our island, there was a wall of water coming, frothing, boiling, and fucking angry as hell, bearing down on us. In the distance, I watched as the 50 water bungalows that lined the reef edge were disintegrating like matchwood dumping guests and furniture into the sea. Eddies and vortexes whirled round and there was a strange mist everywhere, smelled like death, as this wave moved towards us in slow motion. I remember turning to run towards someplace safe. But how can you be safe, 1 meter above the sea, water on all sides, with just flimsy thatch buildings made of coconut wood all around, and a wall of water bearing down? I literally stopped breathing, and ran. I didn’t get very far, as a wave smashed me against the wall of the executive offices and instantly my cell phone, keys, watch, ID and wallet were sucked out of my pockets. As I struggled to stand up I heard screams as children and guests were washed past me through reception straight out to sea… I grabbed the ones I could and screamed at them to hang onto my arm, and we inched our way along the wall that was now breaking up from the pressure of the water….in front of us were guests running like crazy from the disintegrating water bungalows and water restaurant that had now collapsed….
There’s more.

Also: three tourist videos.

December 27, 2004
How to help/pass it on
Posted by Teresa at 11:59 PM * 55 comments

The South-East Asia Earthquake is an instant blog focusing on “short news and information about resources, aid, donations and volunteer efforts.” They’re blogging everything: news updates, theoretical articles on tsunami, contact numbers for relief agencies, current death tolls, and, especially, information on how to help.

Please help. This is dreadful beyond words. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the entire island of Sumatra was moved 100 feet to the southwest. In the lightly populated Andaman and Nicobar islands alone, there are three thousand confirmed dead, 30,000 missing, 15 villages still under water, and several islands nobody can raise on the radio. The extent of the damage around the shores of the Indian Ocean is like thousands of miles of 9/11, in some cases stretching miles inland, from Sumatra to Somalia. Children were hit hard. So were the small indigenous fishing fleets, which would have been out doing early-morning fishing when the waves came. This is world-class bad.

The South-East Asia Earthquake says:
How you can help:

1. Please pass this URL around.

2. You can use THE COMMENTS SECTION OF THIS POST to post any info you have on:
where to send money, what kind of help is needed,
aid organisations,
helplines,
infolines,
email addresses,
phone numbers
news updates
3. If you’re a blogger, and would like to help us out by taking up posting duties, the same post has email addresses of the current contributors who can send you a blogger invitation. It would be nice having people around the world taking this up in shifts.
They also say:
I’m also looking for 2 friends and their 4 year old son who were on Phuket. Kumudhinee Samuel, and Chandraguptha Thenuwara and their son Charudatta Thenuwara. If there’s any news of any Sri Lankans in Phuket anyone please drop me a word at sanjaythelostboy@gmail.com
Do what you can.

Here’s another piece on how you can help.

Technical problem, sigh
Posted by Patrick at 12:41 PM * 27 comments

This is Patrick, not Teresa, who’s just noticed that, viewed with Safari, Making Light’s entire left-hand column now appears to be blank, and the material that belongs in the left-hand column now sits at the bottom of the right-hand column.

We usually use Firefox, so we’ve just now noticed this. I wonder if it dates from our attempts to fix the wretched problems with Making Light in Microsoft Internet Exploder. Is it happening to other Safari users? And do any of our technically-adept readers have any suggestions?

UPDATE: Problem solved, thanks to Andrew Willett. Glory.

December 24, 2004
Christmas, 2004
Posted by Teresa at 11:23 PM * 35 comments

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, “Fear not; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

Holiday hits
Posted by Teresa at 12:25 PM * 208 comments

John Scalzi’s been running a participatory thread:

Your Christmas gift is the ability to expunge one highly annoying yet popular Christmas song from the history of the world. Which one is it?
His own choice is “Feliz Navidad.”

My reaction: I only get one? How about a couple of dozen? There’s a lot of Christmas music I’d be grateful to never hear again.

My theory about why there are so many wretchedly mediocre holiday-season recordings is that programmers have a lot of hours to fill between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and a song that gets onto their playlists is a guaranteed annuity for whomever holds the rights. You get bad art when the people making it and selecting it are ignoring their own tastes, and focusing instead on what they think people whom they don’t know will like or expect. In doing that, you run the risk of producing something nobody actually likes, which describes most background Christmas music.

Then there are the songs one actively despises. For me, the top of the list has to be “Jingle Bell Rock.” I hated it the first time I heard it, when I was five or six, and time has not mellowed my feelings about it. Alas, it’s not a singularity. Here’s my deselection:

1. Jingle Bell Rock. Charmless melody, witless lyrics, and anyway I just plain hate it and always have.
2. Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree. See above. It’s in the #2 spot because I wasn’t forced to sing it for the Whittier Elementary School Christmas program.
3. The Cactus Christmas Tree. Never heard it? Lucky you.
4. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. Saccharine faux-naif cute-kid crap.
5. The Christmas Shoes. So vile it leaves me speechless. Read the lyrics for yourself.
6. Pa-rump-pa-bleeping-pum, need I say more.
7. Feliz Navidad. I don’t know. Maybe Jose Feliciano accidentally released the rehearsal version with the placeholder lyrics.
8. The Rebel Jesus, by Jackson Browne. Fatuous lyrics paired with the same tune Jackson Browne uses for everything.
9. All I Want for Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth). Celebrating the joy of of childhood speech impediments. I hear Spike Jones did a funny version of this one, but I’ve never heard it.
10. Blue Christmas. Maudlin and dreary, an exercise in self-pity.
11. I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas. Expresses the lugubrious wish that you be cursed with disastrous weather during the citrus harvest. I’ve never been able to see why a snowed-upon Christmas should be more real than a rainy one.
12. Sleigh Ride/Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!/Walkin’ in a Winter Wonderland. Apparently sleighbells, fireplaces, and bad weather have an aphrodisiac effect on Northeasterners, who for some reason are then obliged to be archly coy about it. Non-despised recordings that confirm the aphrodisiac effects of snow include Baby, It’s Cold Outside, Christmas to Remember, and Blame It on the Mistletoe.
13. The Christmas Song. Cheap sentiment and false nostalgia, brought to you by crooning lounge lizards. How many of us actually miss sleigh bells, or roasting chestnuts on an open fire? And where do they get off calling it the Christmas song? The only good thing about this one is that kids get mixed up and sing “Jack Frost roasting on an open fire.”
14. Silver Bells. I live in a city. Do you live in a city? Have you ever heard these supposed bells? No? I haven’t either. So what the hell is this guy on about?
15. Jingle Bells. More sleighs, more snow, no romance. No one over ten should have to deal with this song.
16. It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas. Perky, shallow. If a year came in which nobody played it, would you notice?
17. The Apocryphal Acts of Saint Nicholas, including: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer/Up on the Housetop/Here Comes Santa Claus/Must Be Santa/Jolly Old St. Nicholas/If It Doesn’t Snow on Christmas/Little Sandy Sleighfoot/Frosty the Snowman. What becomes of novelty songs that cease to be novel? If they’re holiday-themed, they get played anyway. These are all the sort of thing adults think children ought to like. The catalogues of gender-stereotyped toys only enhance the effect.
18. Santa Claus Is Coming to Town. Unless sung by Bruce Springsteen.
19. Santa Baby. Unless sung by Eartha Kitt.
20. O Christmas Tree. Nice tune. Somebody ought to write lyrics for it that don’t suck.

Holiday recordings I don’t loathe:

1. A bunch of stuff by Sidney Carter, John Tams, the Waverly Consort, Joculatores Uppsaliensis, the West Gallery Music Association, and others of their ilk, which I’m not going to list separately.
2. A Charlie Brown Christmas, by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. I’ll even put up with the bleeping Little Drummer Boy.
3. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Sarah McLachlan and Barenaked Ladies.
4. A Fairy Tale of New York, the Pogues with Kirsty McColl.
5. The St. Stephen’s Day Murders, by Elvis Costello. Chorus:
There’ll be laughter and tears over Tia Marias Mixed up with that drink made from girders
And it’s all we’ve got left as you draw your last breath
And it’s nice for the kids as you’ve finally got rid of them
In the St Stephen’s Day Murders.
6. Christmas in Hollis by Run-D.M.C. Not the sort of music I normally listen to, but lord knows it’s not coy. It is, however, the only holiday song I know of where Santa brings money for Christmas.
7. I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas. Patently insane. I’d hate it if it got played a lot.

What do I really like? Adeste Fideles. Joy to the World. Hark! the Herald Angels Sing. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. Angels We Have Heard on High. Silent Night. Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending. Gaudete. O Holy Night. We Three Kings. The Coventry Carol. As Lately We Watched. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear. Nowell Sing Nowell. Dona Nobis Pacem. You know—the usual.

Addendum: The only English lyrics to the “O Tannenbaum” tune I’ve ever liked were an unofficial version of “O Maryland My Maryland,” the MD state song. Oddly enough, this was sung to me by Rob Hansen, a Welshman living in London. I just now found a version of it online. Like “The St. Stephen’s Day Murders,” the rhymes and meter work just fine—if you get the accent right:
Oh Maryland

We’ve got some hills, we’ve got some trees,
We sing in four-part harmonies;
There’s shopping malls and city halls,
And cats and dogs and ponds with frogs;
But none of us has ever meant
To overthrow the government.
From Baltimore to Hagerstown,
Just take your car and drive around.

We’re near the nation’s capital,
But we are not stuck up at all,
So take a stand and shake the hand
Of every crab in Maryland.
We touch four states and several bays,
The highways mostly run both ways,
We hope you come and say hello
And maybe stop and spend some dough.

When I was ten my family
Moved here from West Virginia;
I went to school in Annapolis,
I studied Greek and calculus,
And now I live in Baltimore
And that’s what Maryland is for.
Oh Maryland, oh Maryland,
Oh Maryland, oh Maryland.

I have a dog whose name is Jack,
I threw a stick, he brought it back.
My sister had a cat, I think,
My mother had a kitchen sink.
My father was a decent man,
And we all lived in Maryland.
Oh Maryland, oh Maryland,
Oh Maryland, oh Maryland.

Our nights are dark, our days are fair,
We’re right next door to Delaware.
Our song before was full of gore
But we heard the Union won the war.
We’re sorry if we made you mad,
It was the only song we had.
Oh Maryland, oh Maryland,
Oh Maryland, oh Maryland.

December 21, 2004
Marlowe in action
Posted by Teresa at 10:34 AM * 369 comments

Kip Williams quotes from Act I of Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragedy of the Big Slumber:

For long and weary hours, I bored myself Counting the old, tired webs of spiders
In my narrow office. Just then I heard
A ringing sound from the bell out front,
And in my dismal garret I beheld
A wench who made a good first impression
To my eyes. Her face, I thought could launch
A thousand or so ships, her eyes burn down
A hell of a lot of topless towers.
I took in her form and her tear-streaked face
She beseechingly asked, “Mister Marlowe?
I’m in trouble. They told me you could help.”
(First published in rec.arts.sf.fandom, January 2003)

December 17, 2004
Open thread 34
Posted by Teresa at 03:01 PM * 293 comments

When all the other threads start reading like open threads, it’s time to start a new one.

December 16, 2004
Spamming Stephan Zielinski
Posted by Teresa at 08:47 AM *

If you want to see some unsettling comment spam, go to Google and type in [“stephan zielinski” “make me maintain AIX].

Stephan is one of my authors. His first novel, Bad Magic, just came out, so we’re collecting the initial wave of reviews. But this past week, when I Googled on his name to see if any more reviews had accumulated, I turned up a lot of strange hits.

Backstory: At some point in the distant past, Stephan wrote and published the line, “Beat me. Whip me. Make me maintain AIX. Somebody liked it well enough to include it in a LINUX quote file. More recently, when the whole comment spam thing got started, one of the spammers grabbed that quote, complete with attribution, and used it as the ostensible text of hundreds of spammed comments that were actually come-ons for Celebrex, Cialis, Levitra, Lipitor, Propecia, Soma, Tramadol, Viagra, Vioxx, Xanax, Zyban, and hot casino action. That’s creepy, to have your name used as spam.

The sites where this has happened are also creepy in their own right. The spam was posted indiscriminately. Here are some of the places it wound up:
Re: outdoor ornaments Tonic: “Meterosexuals”
ComidaDeMama: IS MY BLOG READING#1
papalarge: The Last Limb
Scuttlebutt: Checked exceptions
Re: Manuals/Service books
Alien Jesus Collective: SARS mortality rates keep going up
UDP VIPER
Re: prduction of tea
chromeGraphics::blosxom
caricature: パンドラの匣/太宰治
mattw.fn_blog()
Open Source Software News:
FreeLists / ewatch-devel / [ewatch-devel]
Spitting Image: Minor Atrocities of the 20th Century
Inside The Mind of Naked Jay - THIS ALMOST MAKES ME GLAD I’M
MySQL Lists: maxdb: Case sensitive attributes and table names
SpeedLight: Eheti vend�geink
A Grown Woman: Happy Birthday!
Re: Used Text Book for Level l or ll
Re: looking for bare land in Oregon or Washinton, must have a running creek and owner willing to finance
mdcm5014: the electrician from hell
570Bars.com: Anthony’s Home Port (Shilshole) (#43)
Classics Network Forums — The responsibilities of being human
Scuttlebutt: Checked Exceptions
Into the Wind: Kite Forum: Re: Frequency of repairs?
The only thing they have in common is ill-maintained comment threads. Some of them have been hit repeatedly. I suspect that if you don’t clean up your spam, they send you more because they know it’ll stay up.

When you click through to some of these sites, there’s no human interaction going on at all, just one comment spam after another after another. It’s like being in an abandoned house that vandals have been using as a garbage dump. There’s a good example here—practically a museum of the stuff, close to 500 separate spams, with a combined wordcount equal to a full-length novel.

The site’s a weblog called The Tough Democrat. It hasn’t been updated since April 2004, when its proprietor announced his “…switch from a well-paying but boring job to a lean but fantastic gig that takes an enormous amount of creative energy.” Near as I can tell, every post in his archives, June 2003 through April 2004, has a comment thread consisting of hundreds and hundreds of toxic comment spams. Lord knows how many abandoned weblogs out there are in the same condition.

Google’s spiders periodically come along and note the links, which is why the rest of us get hit with this stuff. I’m starting to regard unmaintained comment areas as the online equivalent of letting old automobile tires lie around in your back yard, collecting stagnant water where mosquitoes breed.

December 15, 2004
Does everyone but me know about this stuff?
Posted by Teresa at 01:47 PM * 12 comments

What is Blogshares, who is Vijay Navaratnam, and why are people trading stock in Making Light?

December 14, 2004
Saint’s day
Posted by Teresa at 11:15 AM * 27 comments

Today is the feast day of Saint John of the Cross, who in my opinion ought to be a patron saint of writers, especially writers currently engaged in the act of composition.* He was a Carmelite at a time when the order was split into pro-reform and anti-reform factions. He was pro-reform. After years of working for that cause, he was kidnapped by anti-reform Carmelites, who imprisoned him for nine months in the dark, tiny, airless, unheated, and hygienically vile closet latrine of a friary in Toledo. While he was there waiting to be rescued, he wrote some of his greatest works.

After that it occurred to him that nobody was going to rescue him, so he escaped on his own.

December 13, 2004
The power of the press, sort of
Posted by Teresa at 05:33 PM * 142 comments

If you follow the link from Particles that says Don’t touch with a ten-foot pole, you’ll find the suddenly squeaky-clean website of Profitable Publishing, which as of today says:

Incredible books available from Profitable Publishing at
BOOKS TO BELIEVE IN
Great books by fantastic new authors!!!!

A Division of Thornton Publishing
And a little further down:
Hey Bloggers,
Check out these books-you don’t need a 10-foot pole to read them! LOL! Please, scroll down past this top text to view all the books. They’re awesome, interesting, enjoyable and informative. Most were written by first time published authors who truly enjoy their relationship with their publishing company! Judge for yourself!…
Just for the record - the bloggers who have recently negatively targeted my website have never done business with me. Their opinions are strictly their own and do not originate from an informed position. This blog thread originated from someone being mad at an entirely different publishing company.
Yeah uh-huh.

So what’s going on? Well, as of yesterday, or possibly this morning, Profitable Publishing’s main page looked like this.

Blinding, ain’t it? And if you’re wondering whether “partner publish with us” means what you think it means, you’re right: this is a vanity/POD operation. Their minimum charge for publishing your book is $549 up front, or three payments of $200. That’s not quite the way their main page put it, though, in the previous instantiation of the site:
Partner publish with us to get your books in print fast, easy, economically and profitably!
But not grammatically.
Created by an author for authors, Profitable Publishing can take you and your book where you want to go!
Assuming that where you want to go is a vanity POD with a startlingly high initial fee.
Want to see your book in Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com?
Profitable Publishing is an:
Official Barnes & Noble Vendor since 1999
& an Amazon.com Advantage Member since 1998
That means the book’s ISBN is listed at Amazon and B&N, and that they’ll order a copy if someone comes by and asks for it. Whoopee.
Listed by Writer’s Digest November 2002 - October 2004 in their Exclusive Resource Directory as one of the top Subsidy Presses in America! Listed as one of the nations top Subsidy Press Companies by Writers Digest 3 years in a row!
Well. Er. Hey, anyone here want coffee? I’ll put on a fresh pot.
When you “partner-publish” with Profitable Publishing, most authors see a complete return on their investment with the sale of their first 100 books!!!
If they incurred no other costs whatsoever (which is impossible), and priced their books at least $5.50 above the per-unit cost, the authors might at this point start to break even.
Easily making 10 times what would be made by commercially publishing or self-publishing the old conventional offset way, the Staff at Profitable Publishing will guide you through the publishing process from start to finish - until you have a successful and profitable book project!
“Ten times what would be made by commercial publishing” is so vague that there’s no use refuting it on specifics. However, a successful POD title does not make ten times what a successful conventionally published book would make. POD doesn’t get economies of scale. It’s meant for books that sell in trickles, though it’s greatly favored by publishers whose books don’t sell at all.
Our success depends on your success! We set up the process so that it is a win/win proposition!
Given a vanity/POD publishing model, minimal pre-press input, no distribution costs, and a $550-$600 minimum fee, PP’s success can get along just fine without your success.
When you follow the profitability plan created just for your project, you’ll see success right from the start! We work together to turn your book project into a self-supporting, profitable endeavor - usually, with the first 100 books sold!
I doubt it. I most sincerely doubt it.

Have I ever mentioned that when scamhunters are checking out a publisher’s website, the first big test is whether the site is primarily pitched to the bookbuying public, or to authors who want to get published? It’s true; and very effective it is, too. Scammers and vanity operations don’t make their money selling copies of their books, so that’s not where they focus their effort. They make their money off wanna-be writers, so that’s who they pitch to. A reader-oriented main page is no guarantee that a publisher is legit, but a writer-oriented one is a very bad sign.

Profitable Publishing is all the wretched hopeless things I’ve come to expect from vanity PODs: no real distribution, no sales force, no editing as such, dreadful covers, and a publishing model that couldn’t make a success of Harry Potter and the Bridges of Pokemon County by Susanna Clarke.*

Like so many of its kind, the company grew out of the inability of its founder, Ms. E.J. Thorne, to get anyone to publish her first book.

She, like so many of her kind, has also written a book about how to achieve success in publishing. Honestly, they all write them. It amazes me. I wouldn’t write a book that claimed to do that—I know I don’t know how to guarantee publishing success, though I do know ways to improve your chances—but there are all these people out there who’ve never been conventionally published, aren’t sure what Ingram does, and wouldn’t know corrugation from Ian Ballantine’s left shoe,* but nevertheless think they know all about it.

They never mention the real secret of how they’re making money via self-publishing, which is to rook other writers into paying them money to hopelessly publish the authors’ largely hopeless books. Maybe they’re honestly starry-eyed when they first set out to publish their own work, but by the time they’re bunco-steering other writers in wholesale quantities … nah. They’ve become something else by then.

Here’s from PP’s page about things you won’t have to do any more, assuming you go with them:
Now you NO LONGER have to:
  • Spend thousands of dollars to buy thousands of books for a print run, just to make the project cost eventually cost effective. Using the latest print on demand technology and consulting with Thornton Publishing�s marketing department, together we�ll turn the book project into a self-supporting, profitable endeavor.
  • Live with mistakes. If you�ve gone to the expense of printing up your books - and then found an edit error - you�re stuck. Using the digital printing on demand, mistakes can be corrected with each new run. You�re never out of luck or out of date with this technology!
Hopeless.

They offer seminars, too.

Back to the story. This all got started over at Absolute Write’s Bewares Board, in their extremely long-running discussion of PublishAmerica. Jim Macdonald—a member in good standing of SFWA’s scamhunting crew, and a man who’s looked at a lot of bad-news publishing setups, posted this:
Re: Linking it all back to PublishAmerica…

I’ve been looking at the PublishAmerica thread, How Did You Discover PA?

A depressing number of folks just Googled on “Book Publisher,” came up with PA as the top hit, didn’t bother to do any other research, submitted there first, and the rest is history.

But others … I’ve looked at some of their prior publishing credits, and I found….

Profitable Publishing

All I can say is “Oh.”

Oh, my.

Oh. My. Ghod.

Compared to those guys, PA probably does seem like a good deal. Compared to those guys, PA probably is.

I still wish that those authors had started their publisher search at the top rather than at the bottom of the heap. Just because you published with a bottom-feeder doesn’t mean that you’ve written a bottom-feeding book.

I weep for the humanity.
Another poster there, Underthecity, observed that PP’s now-former site had a curious resemblance to a site called The Cavalcade of Schlock—you know, just sayin’. In the meantime, Jim passed the Profitable Publishing link on to me, and I put it up on Particles. All normal.

Around a quarter past eleven, Jim noted that Profitable Publishing had redone their main page, so he posted a link to the Google-cached version of the previous version. The board briefly took note of this, then went back to discussing the shortcomings of PublishAmerica. Then, around mid-afternoon, E.J. Thornton Herself showed up on the board to denounce the denunciations and explain that for her, this episode was an opportunity, not an embarrassment; but she was ticked off anyway.

I know there’s grand opera. Is there tiny opera? This is tiny opera. The drama would have played better if E.J. Thornton weren’t under the impression that posts to a public bulletin board are called “blogs.” Reconfiguring the front page would have worked better if EJT hadn’t opened her mouth on the Bewares Board and said, “My business is to sell publishing contracts to authors.”

Right. If she knew what she was doing, she’d have a different job.

Update, 12/14/04: E.J. Thornton has reconfigured her page yet again! There’s still a malediction against bloggers in tiny type at the top of the page, but the book catalogue has been moved elsewhere, and the page is now devoted to quoting nice things people have said about her in correspondence.

Further update, 12/15/04: The malediction against bloggers has now been removed. I’m going to stop reporting her changes. This is getting circular, and with the holidays coming up, she’s got to have other things she needs to be doing.

December 12, 2004
Smokin’ spam
Posted by Teresa at 10:56 PM *

We’ve been hit hard by comment spam this weekend. I’m talking 480 spams in ten minutes on Saturday morning. None of it has gotten past the combination of MT Blacklist plus the latest version of Movable Type, and Patrick hasn’t had to devote undue time or trouble to killing it.

I’d be interested in knowing whether anyone else got hit. In the meantime, if you’re having comment spam problems, consider upgrading to these fine, fine software products.

Bad, bad Santas
Posted by Teresa at 01:00 PM *

From today’s New York Times:

Santa broke out the sour mash at 10 a.m. Christmas was coming. Why not have a drink? He raised his glass to another Santa, who was sucking back some Colt 45.

“Pace yourself,” the second Santa said. “I started with beer this year, not Jim Beam like last year.”

Santa got drunk yesterday. He cursed. He smoked. He took off his clothes in public. It was Santacon, an annual gathering of nasty Santas, in which some 500 naughty Clauses marched through the city, shouting, drinking, raising gentle mayhem.
This could be further confirmation that the “-con” trope has escaped into the wild. Still, if they’ve been calling it “Santacon” for ten years, and it started in the Bay Area, I’d say the odds are good that someone connected to our tribe was involved. A mention of the Santas retreating to a Polynesian-style lounge bar during their first outing in 1994 only adds to my suspicions.
Santacon began 10 years ago in San Francisco, where 30 friends, disheartened by the happiness of Christmas, got together in their Santa suits and set out to have some fun. They crashed a dinner dance and stole people’s drinks. Went to a strip club. Drank themselves silly. Some made it home. Others slept in the streets.

This year, Santacon was—or will be—celebrated from New York to Tokyo and places in between. Its schedule and history can be found online at www.santarchy.com.

The brains behind Santacon are something of a mystery, its organizers remaining underground. A reporter in the crowd set out yesterday to find the Claus-in-Charge but was told there was no main Claus, only subordinate Clauses.

There are four cardinal rules at Santacon. Don’t mess with the police. Don’t mess with kids. Don’t mess with store security. And don’t mess with Santa. These rules were printed on the backs of vomit bags. The bags were passed among the crowd.

New York’s Santacon began with dim sum at the Triple 8 Palace, a Chinese joint on East Broadway under the Manhattan Bridge. “In the North Pole, we don’t get a chance to eat often Chinese very often,” one Santa said. “So when we come to the city, we like to hit the Asian places.”

This Santa, like most, asked to use his working name for reasons of professional privacy. So, Santa it was—all around.

“Santa’s hungry!” Santa called out to the waiter.

“Santa’s taking his pants off!” Santa hollered in the Triple 8. And he did. At the dim sum cart.

After fueling up, Santa headed for the F train. “Have you been nice or naughty?” one lovely Santa in a pair of fishnet stockings asked a police officer. The officer said he’d been naughty. “Well, you get two candy canes for being naughty,” lovely Santa said.

When the F train started, 200 Santas lurched and shouted, “Ho!”

It was a sea of hats and beards and bellies. There were so many Santas, one began to wonder how they got the day off. It was, after all, the holidays—Santa’s busiest time of year.

“Wal-Mart took my job,” said Santa Lamar.

Santa Kevin had a different answer. “Santa got outsourced to India,” he said.

In the West 34th Street station, Santa broke the escalator. “Ho! Ho! Ho!” the crowd of Santas yelled. Then Santa stopped in Herald Square to sing some variations on carols—“Frosty the Cokehead” and “Chipmunks Roasting on an Open Fire.”

It was on to the New York Public Library, where several hundred Santas gathered on the front steps shouting: “Santa wants a beer! Santa wants a beer!”

One woman turned to her husband with a frown. “This,” she said, “is really going to mess up the kids.”

There was a dicey moment when two traffic officers gave Santa Claus the eye as he and 300 pals crossed 42nd Street at the Avenue of the Americas. A Santa in the vanguard told the officers a few more Santas would be coming in their wake.

“Whose streets?” one Claus chanted. “Santa’s streets!” the crowd called back.

Now Santa headed for that beer. “Belly up to the bar!” one Santa shouted as Santas, by the hundreds, wandered into an Italian place on West 44th Street.

They ordered drinks and staged a belching competition. It was 2 p.m. The day was young.
I’m watching this story, just waiting for someone to complain about the demise of traditional Christmas practices.

Bad Santa is older than Christmas, and at least as pervasive. He’s the Abbot of Unreason, the Bean King, the Boy Bishop, the Prince des Sots, and the Lord of Misrule. He and his perpetually irrepressible ilk have always turned up at the Feast of Asses, Feast of Fools, Brumaria, and Saturnalia. He probably goes back farther than that, but the records don’t.

Besides, Saint Nicholas is good for it. He’s the patron saint of New York City, and the guy who laid a smackdown on Arius in a tavern during the Council of Nicaea. The current image of kindly ol’ Santa Claus, and Christmas as a quiet family holiday, was a PR campaign cooked up in the Nineteenth Century as an attempt to curb the drunken excesses of public celebration in NYC.

So ho, ho, ho. Just keep that fat guy in the red suit away from my wallet.

So that’s why…
Posted by Teresa at 12:34 PM * 100 comments

I’m trying to remember now who it was that was being so dubious when I mentioned that the Danish side of the family—my Nielsen grandparents, at whose house we always observed Christmas Eve—had a firm tradition of serving rice pudding to everyone before dinner. In one bowl there would be a hidden almond, and whoever got it was given a present.

“Rice pudding?” said my interlocutor. “On Christmas?”

“Christmas Eve,” I said. “And yes, rice pudding. Always.” I don’t know how to explain now, because I didn’t know how I knew it then, but it had the feeling of something that had to happen. It was a minor mystery, unfortunately not investigated when questions might have been answered, as is so often the case with odd memories of one’s grandparents.

Today, quite by accident, I ran across this:
Of goats and elves. Scratch the surface of Christmas folklore in Scandinavian countries, and you find images and traditions that probably go way back. Perhaps this is because Christian missionaries didn’t reach these countries until the 10th and 11th centuries. …
Tut. Saint Ansgar went to Sweden in 829.
There’s the Julbock or Julbukk, or Yule goat, from Sweden and Norway, who had his beginnings as carrier for the god Thor. Now he carries the Yule elf when he makes his rounds to deliver presents and receive his offering of porridge.
(The site notes that the Finnish version of the Yule goat, the Joulupukki, has been known to make the delivery run himself, riding on a bicycle—when he isn’t using a sleigh and reindeer.)
The Yule elf is called Jultomten in Sweden, Julesvenn in Norway, and Julenissen in Denmark and Norway. Julenissen was remembered fondly in 1908 by Jacob Riis:
“I do not know how the forty years I have been away have dealt with Jule-nissen, the Christmas elf of my childhood….He was pretty old then, gray and bent, and there were signs that his time was nearly over. When I was a boy we never sat down to our Christmas Eve dinner until a bowl of rice and milk had been taken to the attic, where he lived with the martin and its young, and kept an eye upon the house—saw that everything ran smoothly. I never met him myself, but I know the house cat must have done so. No doubt they were well acquainted, for when in the morning I went in for the bowl, there it was, quite dry and licked clean, and the cat purring in the corner….the Nisse, or the leprecawn—call him what you like—was a friend indeed to those who loved kindness and peace.”
An offering for the house-elf! And notice Riis’s never: this was something that had to happen. I don’t know whether Grandpa or Grandma Nielsen had any notion of leaving some rice pudding out as an offering, and I never heard mention of any Christmas entity other than Santa Claus. Still, there was that sense of something imperative attached to Christmas Eve rice pudding.

If that’s the deal, maybe I’ll make some this year. It’s not that I’m a Scandinavian; I’m not. I’m an American who’s partly of Scandinavian descent. House-elves have never had a significant place in my worldview, and they don’t have one now. It’s just that I don’t want to be impolite about it.

December 09, 2004
Gerald Allen is stupider than dirt
Posted by Teresa at 04:29 PM * 140 comments

Gerald Allen isn’t just plain old everyday stupid. He’s blood-and-bone stupid. He’s stupider than dirt.

This is from today’s Guardian:
What should we do with US classics like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or The Color Purple? “Dig a hole,” Gerald Allen recommends, “and dump them in it.” Don’t laugh. Gerald Allen’s book-burying opinions are not a joke.

Earlier this week, Allen got a call from Washington. He will be meeting with President Bush on Monday. I asked him if this was his first invitation to the White House. “Oh no,” he laughs. “It’s my fifth meeting with Mr Bush.”

Bush is interested in Allen’s opinions because Allen is an elected Republican representative in the Alabama state legislature. He is Bush’s base. Last week, Bush’s base introduced a bill that would ban the use of state funds to purchase any books or other materials that “promote homosexuality”. Allen does not want taxpayers’ money to support “positive depictions of homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle”. That’s why Tennessee Williams and Alice Walker have got to go.

I ask Allen what prompted this bill. Was one of his children exposed to something in school that he considered inappropriate? Did he see some flamingly gay book displayed prominently at the public library?

No, nothing like that. “It was election day,” he explains. Last month, “14 states passed referendums defining marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman”. Exit polls asked people what they considered the most important issue, and “moral values in this country” were “the top of the list”.

“Traditional family values are under attack,” Allen informs me. They’ve been under attack “for the last 40 years”. The enemy, this time, is not al-Qaida. The axis of evil is “Hollywood, the music industry”. We have an obligation to “save society from moral destruction”. We have to prevent liberal libarians and trendy teachers from “re-engineering society’s fabric in the minds of our children”. We have to “protect Alabamians”.
That man is dumber than two bags of hammers on a slow Thursday night. If a lifetime of constant exposure to positive depictions of heterosexuality doesn’t turn children straight, how is it that an occasional depiction of homosexuality is going to turn them gay?

You know what he’s really saying, don’t you? He’s saying that gay sex has straight sex beat all hollow, that’s what. It’s stronger, sharper, more pervasive and overwhelming. Sexier. Instantly attractive. Transcendently hot. All it takes is one hint that homosexuality is survivable, that it’s something engaged in by humans rather than demons, and right away kids are going to be abandoning the straight and missionary for a life as a queer.

It must make Gerald Allen feel kind of small and humble and inadequate to know that gay sex is so powerful, when he’s just a feeble little straight boy. No wonder he has to get out there and puff himself up by preaching the glory of homosexuality.

He’s no better than those people who pretend they’re hardcore Christians when they’re really preaching Satan Triumphant. I mean the ones who think that after years and years of weekly church services, with hymn-singing and Bible-reading, the least little exposure to some kind of encoded Satanic reference—seeing pictures of rainbows or Ganesha, or taking in the afternoon matinee of the latest Harry Potter movie, or hearing a rock song with muddled lyrics they can’t make out anyway—is tantamount to throwing open the door to Satan.

What they’re saying is that Satan is much more powerful than God, and that nobody who was even glancingly acquainted with Satanism would ever want to stick with Christianity. They might as well don the robes and start sacrificing goats, because they believe in the mighty power of Satan as much as any declared Satanist out there.

Gerald Allen’s like them, except what he believes in is the overwhelming superiority of homosexuality. Only he doesn’t even have the option of converting, the way Satan-worshipping Christians do, because he’s stuck being straight just as thoroughly as gays are stuck being gay.

Sucks to be him.

December 08, 2004
Chatham County Artillery Punch
Posted by Teresa at 08:33 PM * 52 comments

An old recipe found on Yucks Digest V4 #31, just in time for the holiday parties. It was originally posted by one Scott Dorsey, in September of 1994. It should be made well in advance of need.

Chatham County Artillery Punch

1 lb. green tea
2 gallons cold water
3 gallons Catawba wine
1 gallon rum
1 gallon brandy
1 gallon rye whiskey
5 lbs. brown sugar
2 qts. cherries
juice of three dozen oranges
juice of three dozen lemons
1 gallon gin
12 quarts of champagne

Mix the green tea into the cold water and let it stand overnight, then strain. Mix the tea and juices together first, then the sugar and the liquors, but don’t add the champagne. The recipe doesn’t specify when to add the cherries, but putting them in after the sugar and liquors should work. It also notes that the gin should be “added after juice to make smooth.” How you interpret this is up to you.

Note: Rye whiskey is not Canadian Club, unless you’ve been given a large bottle of CC and are stuck for ways to get rid of it. There are three non-boutique brands of rye: Jim Beam Rye, Wild Turkey Rye, and Old Overholt. The latter’s my favorite, but they’re all passable.

The recipe says to put a cover on your container and let the punch stock set for a week or two. In my opinion, you should put said container in a cool dark place, and more than a week is pushing it. Judging from internal evidence, this punch recipe dates from a time when large refrigerators were uncommon; but if you have sufficient capacity, I think refrigerating it would be a good idea. Spoiled citrus juice is nasty, and it would be a terrible waste of all that hootch.

When you’re ready to serve the punch, stir it well, then add ice and twelve quarts of chilled champagne, and stir again. If I’ve added the numbers up correctly, it should make something on the order of 14 gallons of punch, not counting the ice.

Like all such recipes, this one is advertised to have a pleasant, innocent, refreshing taste, while packing a wallop like a salvo from a 12-inch gun. It boasts the additional distinction of having, on some unspecified occasion, flattened Admiral Dewey. Perhaps it did. I have a vague memory of Paula Lieberman once telling me about a jolly trick involving alcohol and grapefruit juice, but I don’t remember it well enough to judge whether this recipe uses the same trick.

If you haven’t started a week in advance but still want to produce that effect, lay in a large supply of limes and some Cachaça, plus some sugar and ice, and set to making Caipirinhas. Cachaça is Brazilian white lightning. It’s made from sugarcane but tastes nothing like rum. In fact, it’s vile stuff—except, alchemically, in Caipirinhas.

Recipe: Take one lime, two ounces of Cachaça, and sugar to taste (maybe 2 tsp. or so). Cut the lime into wedges, put them into a heavy-bottomed glass peel-side-down, and muddle them with the sugar. “Muddle” means you take something like a heavy wooden spoon handle and gently mush the sugar into the limes. Brazilians have dedicated lime-mushing implements, but a heavy wooden spoon handle will do just fine. When you’re finished, add the Cachaça and stir well. Add ice.

If you can get hold of them, Mexican sour oranges work well too.

I don’t know what it is about Caipirinhas that gives them their evil potency, or their insidious power to make you think that drinking more of them is a good idea. My theory is that your poor system, poleaxed by the initial shock of Cachaça, registers the lime juice and sugar as a salvific dose of electrolytes and sucrose: good idea, drink more of this. Two Caipirinhas are as much as anyone should drink who doesn’t honestly expect to die before the alarm clock goes off next morning.

[Recipe Index]

December 07, 2004
Observance
Posted by Teresa at 07:07 PM * 24 comments

It may be a day that will live in infamy, but it’s also Madeleine’s birthday.

Happy birthday, Mad!

We never knew
Posted by Teresa at 06:00 AM * 101 comments

Allow me to direct your attention to the We Never Knew website, a documentary project (with accompanying poster) of the Georgetown Book Shop, Bethesda, MD:

How much was known about Hitler before he came into power? How much was on the record about the nature of the Nazi regime in its early days? How pervasive was its anti-Semitism, and how much of that was documented long before the outbreak of the war? What was known about Hitler’s dreams of conquest? Was the Holocaust foreseeable?

A common answer to all these questions has often been “We never knew….,” as if somehow the entire history of the Third Reich took place on a distant planet, unknown and unknowable.

Our aim is simple: To puncture this myth.

Our target audience: Anyone with curiosity about an unspeakable time.

The object of “We Never Knew” is to present a chronological account, in graphic form, of what we knew, and when we knew it. For illustration, we have chosen images off of book jackets from 1932 to 1943, taken from our own private collection. These are supplemented by a few posters and pamphlet covers from the same time frame. Most of the books were by widely respected (or at least widely known) authors, and were readily available to the English-speaking public at least. Some were international best sellers with a distribution of a million or more. Most of them were widely reviewed in the mainstream press. Just look at the sheer number of these images, and the steady, year-by-year drumbeat of warnings and exaltations: Three from 1932; three from 1933; five from 1934; three from 1935; three from 1936; one from 1937; six from 1938; six from 1939; one from 1940; one from 1941; one from 1942; and two from 1943. Only space considerations prevent us from showing many more. We did know what was going on.

Now take a closer look at some of the individual images. The Dorothy Thompson book, I Saw Hitler, for example. Thompson, perhaps the most widely read American columnist of the 1930’s, interviewed Hitler before his ascension to power, and here is what the future Fuehrer proclaimed to the world in a book published in 1932: “The world belongs to the nordics…all that is not race, is dross.” No weasel words there. Or consider the documentary book, The Yellow Spot, whose jacket fairly screamed, “The Extermination of the Jews in Germany. The First Complete Documentary Study.” This in 1936, when Hitler’s dreams of conquest could have been aborted with relative ease. Or to take one of the Nazi images, look at the terror on the faces which are depicted on the 1938 post-Anchluss Austrian poster, Time to Get Out, which was part of the infamous, blood libelous exhibition, “The Eternal Jew.” Seen by millions of “good” Austrians and Germans. And also written up in the western press, including Life magazine, with a circulation of well over a million. No, we couldn’t have known.
In all of us, there’s a tendency to believe that people would see things differently if only they knew the truth. This is an error. Following the news and sorting out the issues may be a requirement for responsible, ballot-casting citizenship; but it’s also a lot of work. For many people, the basic calculation is What are the odds that this is going to affect me personally? vs. How much trouble is it going to be for me to pay attention to this?

For instance, in the areas actually attacked on 9/11, Manhattan and Washington D.C., Bush polled 16% and 11%. We’re natural targets, so we have to pay attention to this stuff. And since we do, we notice that when it comes to real homeland security, Bush has been the worst Preznit in American history. He used 9/11 as an excuse to go after someone who didn’t attack us. He welshed on his promises to the FDNY and NYPD. He fought and rejected all the post-event analyses and criticisms of how we went wrong and where we need to improve. He’s made the U.S. odious in the eyes of former friends all over the world. Overall, his performance on this issue has ranged from “completely ineffectual” to “appallingly counterproductive.”

When you live in NYC, you think about these things. However, I believe that a lot of American citizens who don’t live here have privately decided that the odds that they personally will get nailed by terrorists are low enough to ignore. What would a responsible take on the issues get them? Only the unpleasant realization that we live in a complex and dangerous world, and the obligation to pay attention to serious political analysis and news, and other troublesome things of that nature. It’s all very tiresome.

But if they’ve calculated that they themselves are unlikely to get crushed, fried, poisoned, etc., then the only real harm they took on 9/11 was that it scared the bejeezus out of them. The length of the period of universal sympathy for NYC which followed 9/11 is the length of time it took them to decide that they weren’t in line for their own catastrophes. After that, they reacted exactly like someone who’s just been badly frightened—all indignant self-righteous blustering anger, demanding that someone Do Something so they’ll never be frightened like that again, and blaming the victims for whatever it was they did to bring this on themselves.*

That’s a lot more fun than being scared. It’s a lot less trouble than doing something about it. Let reality try to stick you with the bill if it can.

December 05, 2004
Squick and squee
Posted by Teresa at 12:03 AM * 279 comments

Ellen Fremedon, in her Live Journal Cenelice to ganganne hwaer gegan hafde naenig man aer, gets right in there and wrestles with the embarrassingly shameless heart of storytelling; also good fanwriting, bad prowriting, and what she calls the Id Vortex.

I won’t try to summarize it, except to say that it’s short, discomfiting, and I think she’s on to something real.

(And where are my manners? Belatedly: Thank you, Debra Doyle, for the original link.)

Further thoughts next morning: The thing that most fascinated me was the part about slash fanfic writers learning techniques for holding on to good fictional values while they’re writing about massively distracting subjects, a.k.a. the Id Vortex.

What’s in the vortex? If I understand her correctly, it’s all the magic stuff: Sex, power issues, identity issues, physical or emotional violence, revelation, transformation, transcendence, violent catharsis, and whatever else is a high-tension power line for that writer.

Handling that material is a real issue for a lot of writers. Few of the strategies they use for dealing with it are wholly satisfactory. F.I., the traditional row-of-asterisks, later-comma dance of avoidance relegates an entire universe of significant character interactions to a ghostly, implicit life offscreen. If the audience didn’t feel that as a loss, slash fanfic would never have gotten started in the first place.

Some writers go flat and write short, scanting the scene, as though it were an unpleasant episode they were trying to get through without inhaling. Some overcompress their exposition until it turns crabbed and gnomic. That’s great when it works; you can instantly see what that near-riddle has to mean, and the full realization of what follows comes crashing down on you. But when it doesn’t work—which happens far more frequently than authors imagine, because that’s a very hard trick to pull off—a moment that should carry a strong emotional payoff and advance the story suddenly becomes a DIY project. If the necessary clues are there, the reader may be able to stop and decode what must have happened; but that’s like the difference between being told a funny joke, and reading an imperfectly translated explanation of why a joke in some other language is really funny if you speak that language.

One of the things you see most often is the narrative collapsing into formulaic language. As Robyn Bender once observed,
My wise friend RW says there are two hallmarks of a Generic Sex Scene: (1.) You can grab a few such scenes at random from different books, juggle the names and eye colors, and be hard-pressed to tell which scene goes with which story; and, even more damning, (2.) you can remove the scene entirely, substitute the sentence, “Then they had sex,” and the larger narrative will not suffer.
Which is spot on. Writers fall into these evasions because the material makes them uncomfortable. They don’t want to embarrass themselves. That’s where Ellen Fremedon comes in. She starts by discussing a particular slashfic scenario that took her by surprise, something she’d never imagined (and which frankly I wish I’d never heard of), but which was
THE MOST CRACKTASTIC THING EVAR, but… it works, in this supremely creepy sick-and-wrong immensely compelling way.
Then went on:
That storyline cuts pretty close to the id, you know? And it’s just one of a large number of similarly… charged storylines (soul bonds, every fuck-or-die scenario ever written…) that you see very very often in fanfic, and from time to time in profic as well.
She’s talking about stories in which two characters have to get involved, regardless of their personalities, histories, or relative social context. Personally, I’ve always thought the potion Tristan and Isolde drink is a more suitable prop for horror than romance.
And the profic? Almost uniformly sucks. Because pro writers either have some shame, and relegate the purest, most cracklicious iterations of those stories to drawerfic that their workshop buddies will never see, or else they’re shameless. But they usually have to be shameless alone— and so their versions are written so solitarily that they don’t have any voice of restraint, to pull them back from the Event Horizon of the Id Vortex when it starts warping their story mechanics.
Fanfic online venues are full of writers and readers who really want there to be more stories about whatever it is that floats their boat, and who’ll work to help make it happen. That’s why those areas are such hot R&D labs for writerly craft and literary theory. This is not unlike the early days of science fiction, when you had that same deep hunger for the product, and a community of writers and readers who’d give a strongly engaged reading to whatever was there, but who passionately wanted what was there to be better. SF developed its own bag of tricks, mostly expository techniques and worldbuilding, which serious historical fiction snaffled early on, but which mainstream lit is only gradually getting around to stealing.

Is it going too far to formulate this as a rule of thumb? Very likely, but I’ll try one anyway: New ways of telling stories develop most readily when you have a population that’s hungry for the product, the creators have little or no dignity at stake, and there are open channels for feedback and discussion. The American comic book developed like that. So did Kabuki, Bunraku, and Elizabethan theatre.

Back to Ellen Fremedon:
But in fandom,* we’ve all got this agreement to just suspend shame. I mean, a lot of what we write is masturbation material—not all of it, and not for everyone, but. A lot of it is, and we all know it, and so we can’t really pretend that we’re only trying to write for our readers’ most rarefied sensibilities, you know? We all know right where the Id Vortex is, and we have this agreement to approach it with caution, but without any shame at all. (At least in matters of content. Grammar has displaced sex as a locus of shame. Discuss.) And so we’ve got all these shameless fantasies being thrown out into the fannish ether, being read and discussed, and the next thing you know, we’ve got genres. We’ve got narrative traditions. We have enough volume and history for these things to develop a whole critical vocabulary.
And so they do. Bear in mind that this is the social continuum that came up with accretional rating systems as a substitute for the editorial gatekeeping function, formalized the institution of beta readers, and identified and anatomized the Mary Sue.
We have a toolbox for writing this sort of thing really, really well, for making these 3 A.M. fantasies work as story and work as literature without having to draw back from the Id Vortex to do it. And I’m just kind of flailing now and going “Fandom is cool! Squee!” but, really, I wonder what the effect on, if not mainstream literary fiction, at least on mainstream genre fiction is going to be when the number of fanwriters taking that toolbox with them into pro writing reaches critical mass—which I think it’s going to, in the next decade.
Maybe, maybe not. If I have any doubts, it’s because I know that there’s been a steady trickle of fanfic writers turning pro since the days when fanfic was primarily (but not exclusively) about Star Trek characters, and was circulated via mimeography. But maybe Ellen Fremedon’s right. Fanfic’s been around for a while, but this aspect of the fanfic community as R&D lab is something that’s grown up on the Internet.

Suggestions for further reading: If you’re a writer looking to get better at writing sex scenes, a good place to start is historical novelist Sara Donati’s series of eleven short essays on the subject. I love her examples of how to get it right, which include a couple of scenes by romantic-comedy writer Jenny Cruisie, a scene by Booker Prize winner A. S. Byatt, and a piece of Farscape fanfic. The essays are: Writing Sex Scenes. :: Part One: Humor. :: Part Two: Lyricism. :: Part Three: Stream of Consciousness. :: Part Four: NC-17. :: Part Five: Where Things Go Wrong. :: Part Six: Where Things Go Wrong(er). :: Part Seven: Good Bad-Sex. :: Part Eight: More Good Bad-Sex. :: Part Nine: Falling in Love. :: Part Ten: Less or More.

December 04, 2004
Request for feedback
Posted by Teresa at 10:45 AM * 155 comments

Patrick’s giving me grief again about my type being too small and too tightly leaded, and there not being enough contrast between type and background. “They can’t just hit ‘increase text size’ on their browsers?” I ask, and he says no, that’s not enough.

Foo. To me, Making Light is an inviting page: look how much text you can see at once! On the other hand, I’m aware that I have a better-than-average eye for fine detail and low-contrast grayscale, so maybe what’s comfortable for me is less comfortable for everyone else.

(And now, a message from our id: Cory uses near-zero leading, and about a bazillion people read his weblog, so how come I can’t, huh? It’s not fair! I never get to do anything fun Sulk!)

Identifying phish
Posted by Teresa at 08:40 AM * 64 comments

Found via Pericat’s Unlocking the Air: the MailFrontier Phishing IQ Test II. This is good stuff. It tests your ability to distinguish legitimate business email—“the credit card number you have on file with us is about to expire, please update your account,” that sort of thing—from lookalike phishing scams.

(Backstory: Phishing scams are emails that appear to come from a trusted source—usually a real company that does business online—which try to trick you into giving out passwords, account names, email addresses, and personal financial information. In their commonest form, phishmail tells you that for some reason or another, the company they’re impersonating needs to have you update or verify your account information. If you follow the links in the letter, you’ll arrive at a mockup webpage for that company, where you’ll be asked to type in your personal information, codes, etc. Needless to say, this info will be used for nefarious purposes.)

The test has a couple of particularly good features. One is that it uses real business emails and real phish from MailFrontier’s collection. The other is that the answers page not only tells you how you scored on each question, but has a little “Why?” link that takes you to back to that letter and shows you where the clues were. It’s very instructive. I scored 10 out of 10 on the test, but I still picked up a couple of valuable pointers from their explanations.

If you want to test yourself further, MailFrontier’s first phishing IQ test is still up and running, though its punctuation has gotten a little wonky. The earlier version of the test doesn’t have the explanatory links on its answers page, but it does hit you with some impressively slick phishmails. They also have a couple of helpful articles (which would be even more helpful if they weren’t .pdf files): Ten Tips for Finding a Phish, and an up-to-date general article on Email Fraud.

December 03, 2004
Common fraud
Posted by Teresa at 11:00 AM * 210 comments

1. The flowchart:

I first ran into the organization Common Good when Looking for the Next Best Thing linked to a page of theirs, an impressively complicated flowchart that supposedly shows what it takes to suspend a disruptive student in the NYC school system. The chart’s a striking piece of work, but as I read through it, I became uneasy.

I’ve been a bureaucrat. I believe I have some sense of the logic behind the apparent complication of bureaucratic processes, especially in areas like education, where you get multiple overlapping and interacting agencies, authorities, programs, interests, priorities, and rule sets. It’s a necessary complexity, but it lends itself to parody. If you want to take a description of a bureaucratic process and puff it up like a microwaved marshmallow, all you have to do is specify all its possible inputs and contingencies, plus all its optional appeals processes (there are always appeals processes) unto their last detailed kink and wrinkle. It will come out looking impossibly convoluted.

This is in fact what the anonymous author of that flowchart has done with the NYC school system’s suspension process, in order to create the impression that it’s hugely elaborate. He’s cheated along the way; for instance, by separately breaking out the subsections of some regulation (say, the list of information that must be included in the notice of suspension sent to the parents) as though each stipulated databit were a separate step in the process. He’s also given the chart an arbitrarily long, narrow format, which further obscures the actual structure of the process, and makes it look even more endless and convoluted. That’s a misrepresentation, but it’s by no means the only one present.

The flowchart starts by planting the idea of classroom disruption, and the presumed need to get rid of the students who’re causing it. This is not a working model. There are always a few students who are “so disruptive as to prevent the orderly operation of the school,” or whose behavior “represents a clear and present danger to the student, other students, or school personnel,” and you do have to be able to take them out of a setting that can’t accommodate them. However, students that meet that description are not the primary source of classroom disruption, and there sure as heck aren’t one or two of them per class. It’s like bad drivers: a small number of them are so impenitently dangerous that they should be prosecuted as felons, if only to get them off the roads; but they’re hardly the main source of unsafe driving.

Here’s the missing part of the flowchart’s model: Suspending a student is a nontrivially consequential action. The students most likely to get suspended are also likely to have fragile and uncertain school careers. The loss of daily continuity and classroom instruction time can break them. So can the trouble they get into while idle. If you suspend them, they may flunk out, or stop coming, or tangle with the law. At that point, everything suddenly gets much harder for everyone concerned—except, perhaps, for the school that did the suspending.

It’s much easier to dispense education if you’re free to get rid of the problem cases, and anything troublesome can be classified as “disruptive”. Trouble is, the kids you boot out don’t just vanish into thin air. They have to go somewhere and do something. Whatever it is, they’d almost certainly be better off going to school. A good suspension policy doesn’t make it too easy for schools to offload their problems onto someone else’s shoulders.

Aside #1: If you’ve hitherto had a lilywhite WASP school, black students are a disruption. So are ESL students, Muslims, unassimilated Hmong, and observant Jews. It’s not a question of disruption/nondisruption. It’s where we decide to draw the line.

Aside #2: Some of the complications in that flowchart are generated by requirements that parents be brought into the process, fully informed of what’s going on at various stages, and given a say in it. Since I can think of no other circumstance in which parental involvement in education is considered to be a bad thing, I’m not going to accept that it’s bad here, either.

The chart also gets a lot of play out of the separate-but-overlapping rules that kick in if a student is disabled or a Special Ed case. It drops in the questionable datum that about 1 in 10 students is considered “disabled,” which has got to be some kind of misprision. I doubt you can come up with a 10% disability rate in NYC unless you’re counting every child whose home language isn’t solely English—and that’s not enough to get you cosseted. Meanwhile, there’s good reason to have separate rules for children with special needs.

One of the big changes in the U.S. school system over the last few decades has been the mainstreaming of students who have special needs. If they can go to regular schools, they do, and they (supposedly) get the additional help they need to do so. This can be very expensive for their districts, and inevitably brings some disruption to their classrooms, but that was assumed from the start. It can be stressful. But if mainstreaming is going to work, disciplinary assessments have to take special needs into account.

2. Who are these guys, anyway?

So, what’s this flowchart actually about? Not law and education. Not really. I doubt that many readers read much past the first screen’s worth of it, and I don’t think they’re meant to. That first screen sets up the false model of the principal who can identify the one or two children per class who must be suspended in order to maintain any classroom discipline. It also introduces the issue of separate rules for children with special needs, and drops in that strange bit about a 10% disability rate, which undermines the perceived validity of all the protective regulations.

The real payoff is that next to the main flowchart there’s an image of the chart in miniature, a thumbnail version, which even at that size is two or three screens long. The interaction goes like this: You arrive at the page and start reading the main flowchart. You get through about a screen’s worth of it, and then your eyes glaze over. You switch over to the thumbnail version, click down to see where the thumbnail ends, and find there’s an entire second screen’s worth of it with no end in sight.

At that point, the message that’s delivered is that there are unnaturally and unnecessarily complicated legal requirements attached to what should be a simple, straightforward disciplinary option. It’s a lie. But that flowchart is a very elaborately constructed lie—a professional piece of work. It made me want to find out why someone went to all the trouble to put it together. I clicked through to the site’s home page.

Thus did I meet Common Good. Its website claims it’s about “restoring common sense to American law,” and pretends that Common Good is a grassroots organization. I didn’t quite buy it. There was something too slick and simple about the site. It smelled wrong. An organization of real human beings who are trying to address genuinely complex issues ought not generate a webpage as smooth and featureless as a bowlful of Maalox.

I looked further. It didn’t take long, and Common Good was at the top of the list. From the ConsumerWatchDog.org site, 29 May 2003:
Consumer Group & Author Reveal Corporation’s Invisible Hand Behind Attack On Individual’s Legal Rights

Santa Monica, CA — The growing attempt to roll back legal rights for individuals in state house across the nation is being surreptitiously coordinated by America’s largest corporations through the use of front groups, a national consumer group and author revealed today. … The “Astroturf” corporate consultants masquerading as independent, grass roots reformers, according to FTCR’s research, include:

* Common Good, described in Monday’s front page New York Times story only as “an advocacy group dedicated to changing what it calls the lawsuit culture,” was founded by corporate defense lawyer Philip K. Howard, the Vice Chairman of Covington & Burling. This leading corporate defense firm represents many of America’s largest corporations, all of whom have a large stake in limiting consumer’s legal rights. The list includes Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., Lorillard Tobacco Co., Philip Morris Inc., and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co, the American Automobile Association, the Association of American Railroads, the American Petroleum Institute, Eli Lilly, ExxonMobil, Goodyear, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, Trane, and Union Pacific.
That is, Common Good is a corporate-funded organization whose entire purpose is deception and the spread of disinformation.

Cute, huh? Large corporations can do stuff like that. They have lots of money. The same kind of resources that can buy them airtime and slick ads for their products can also buy them the entire appearance of whole grassroots groups, organizations, and popular movements.

3. What’s going on here?

In the case of Common Good, the agenda being pursued can be loosely grouped under tort reform, which isn’t a reform movement at all. It’s a massive lobbying and PR campaign surreptitiously financed by business interests. It works to (1.) bring the law into disrepute; (2.) turn public opinion against small plaintiffs by portraying them as greedheads who file groundless or frivolous lawsuits; (3.) spread the idea that American firms are being driven out of business by runaway jury verdicts (which they aren’t)(and by the way, juries tend to make smaller awards than judges do); (4.) likewise spread the idea that American doctors are being ruined by skyrocketing malpractice premiums caused by an epidemic of outlandish malpractice awards (premiums are up, but malpractice awards aren’t, and the greedheads in this instance are actually the insurance companies); and (5.) create a climate of public opinion that will enable them to get laws and regulations permanently changed in their favor.

If you aren’t already familiar with this issue, probably your best single-stop website is CorpReform.com. Consider linking to it. As the site sums things up,
Tort reform isn’t about fixing a “broken” justice system; it’s about protecting the public image and bottom lines of the biggest and most powerful companies in the world. Tort reform isn’t about protecting doctors from high insurance rates; it’s about protecting their insurers from having to pay large judgments. Tort reform isn’t about keeping “greedy lawyers” from filing frivolous lawsuits; it’s about keeping those who are severely injured out of the court system and away from the public eye.
All true, I’m afraid. This has been going on for a while. From a consumer watch website:
On February 27, 2002, the Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce plans to spend up to $15 million for television ads that highlight the “hidden costs” of allegedly plaintiff-driven product-liability litigation. Thus, U.S. business returns full throttle to an old campaign: tort reform.

The message is not new. For the past fifteen years, pro-business interests in America have sought to “reform” the judicial and regulatory systems that govern consumer products and services in America by limiting the remedies of injured citizens. Until now, initiatives targeting legislative change have encountered limited success. Although many legislatures have adopted some tort-reform measures, most states have rejected the more Draconian reforms. In fact, courts in some states have struck down tort reform attempts as unconstitutional.

The tort reform campaign has gained much wider acceptance, however, in the jury box. Many jurors now treat as axiomatic the notion that the nation is plagued with “frivolous” lawsuits and outrageous jury verdicts. The rich and greedy plaintiff’s lawyer has become a part of American folklore. Of course, these stereotypes have not emerged by chance. They have grown out of a calculated attempt by corporate America to portray itself as the helpless victim of an unfair legal system—to cultivate a legal system that favors business interests.

Thus, while the tort reform campaign may not have convinced legislatures and judges, it has resonated with the public at large. Contrary to widespread propaganda, studies have shown that jurors tend to be “generally favorable toward business, skeptical more about the profit motives of individual plaintiffs than of business defendants, and committed to holding down awards.” As a result, plaintiffs prevail in fewer than half of the cases (48%) that juries hear. Moreover, the overall value of the average jury award is generally less than the actual losses suffered by victims. In fact, juries make the largest awards not in tort cases, but in business litigation cases.

The battle here is not about reality, but perception, and business interests have clearly influenced this battle. And there is every indication—from the Chamber of Commerce’s announcement to election promises—that pressure for alleged “reform” of the legal system will only increase. To face these challenges, proponents of equal access to the justice system for all must understand (1) how the “need” for reform was created, (2) the tactics used and (3) the true facts about the role of personal injury cases in the nation’s courts.

THE BEGINNING OF THE “TORT REFORM” CAMPAIGN

Initial industry efforts to shape the tort-reform debate began in the 1980’s and concentrated on the editorial boards of large newspapers and small-town publications. Editorial writers themselves described direct links between industry-sponsored tort reform campaigns and the content of the editorial articles they wrote. In the mid-1980s, for instance, three tobacco firms (Lorillard, Brown & Williamson and Philip Morris) hired the law firm of Arnold and Porter to gather news clippings on “out-of-control” personal injury claims and send them to influential reporters, columnists, editors and TV producers. These clippings inevitably contained biased accounts of lawsuits in which plaintiffs won large verdicts for seemingly small or nonexistent civil wrongs. Public relations campaigns like these, targeted at the press, produced positive results for their industry sponsors. Commentators soon noted that “… the media began to reflect the anguish of business leaders who complained that a ‘tort explosion’ was undermining Corporate America.”
You know all those stories you’ve read about ridiculous court cases where greedy plaintiffs and their greedy lawyers collect huge settlements for minor injuries that were their own fault in the first place? The McDonald’s coffee case is the most famous. I’m sorry to say that those stories are fabrications, part of the PR campaign. Some of them are pure fiction. Others have been cooked up by grossly misrepresenting real court cases. Netizens have spread them far and wide.

4. Seducing Snopes

Don’t take it personally. Even Snopes.com has fallen for them. But then, Snopes would. They grew up out of the old Internet, back when less money was at stake, and they’re dependent on their informants. That means they can be gamed. Besides, these stories are just their cup of tea, with their consistent underlying trope of “common sense” vs. ridiculous laws, ridiculous regulations, ridiculous courts.

Common Good, the site I was looking at when I started this post, is part of the effort to bring the law into disrepute. That ought to offend you. The law belongs to you, and it’s there to protect you. It’s not always perfect; neither are the courts. But it’s there for you. These campaigns to belittle the law are being paid for by people who are manifestly not on your side.

These are corporations which stand to have to pay out large sums to satisfy legitimate individual claims. Note that: legitimate claims, as in “the corporation knew their product was lethally dangerous under circumstances that were bound to occur sooner or later, and consciously decided not to do anything about it.” They put millions of dollars into spreading the idea that juries commonly award ridiculous damages in trivial lawsuits, and that we’ve somehow become a lawsuit-happy society. They’re lying.

Remember, that supposedly huge settlement $2.6 million settlement against McDonald’s wasn’t because they gave Stella Liebeck third-degree coffee burns (though they did, and then refused her offer to settle if they would just pay her medical bills). The punitive damages were because it came out during the trial that in the ten years prior to Stella Liebeck’s accident, over 700 people had been seriously burned by the coffee McDonald’s kept at an unsafe temperature. McDonald’s knew this was happening, but they maintained their coffee at 190 F. anyway, because it keeps longer at that temperature and thus is slightly more profitable. Finally, the amount of the award wasn’t McDonald’s income for two days, nor even McDonald’s income from coffee for two days. It was two days’ profit from selling coffee that their own spokesman characterized as “unsafe for human consumption.” Ten years of serious injuries didn’t get them to turn down the temperature on their coffee pots. Two days’ coffee profits did.

Never doubt that it’s worth their while to lie to you. When you’re talking about really big corporations and really big money, it’s worth their while to lie to you very, very elaborately.

I should mention malpractice awards, which are another branch of the tort reform campaign. These are the stories about how doctors have to “practice defensive medicine” or stop practicing altogether because their malpractice premiums are going through the ceiling due to people getting rich off frivolous malpractice claims. (Do have a look at that link.) While it’s true that malpractice premiums have gone way up, it’s not because malpractice awards have gone up. It’s because insurance companies want to make even more money than they’re already making. With some of them, it’s because they greedily put a lot of money into risky high-yield investments—exactly the sort of thing insurance companies shouldn’t be messing with—and got caught short when the boom ended.

Apparently some clever fellows have figured out that you can make a lot more money if you divest yourself of the claims-paying part of the insurance business.

It’s very much worth their while to lie to you.

A few years back I had an argument with one of my brothers. I said that right-wing disinformation had a whole lot more money and organization behind it than anything the left had to say. He said no, it didn’t. I said yes, actually; it did. He again said no it didn’t, so I saw there was no use in talking about it, at any rate not with him. But it’s true. Corporate America doesn’t just buy airtime and put together slick ads for its products. It also uses its money to generate some of the slickest disinformation on the planet.

We think we’re so clever, we think we can cope, we think we’re on top of the problem. We don’t just take any old advice off the Internet. We think we know where to find the good stuff. We know to think twice before listening to corporate spokesmen. We give extra credence to private netizens who, out of the kindness of their hearts, are giving us the straight dope on something. We’ve done it a hundred times before. We’ve done the same when someone asked a question we could answer, and felt good for being able to help them.

It’s different now. There’s too much money at stake for that frontier to stay open. Deceiving us has become an industrial process.

December 02, 2004
Open thread 33
Posted by Teresa at 10:50 PM *

Oval oval oval push pull push pull… Words unroll from our fingers.
A splash of leaves through the windowpanes,
A smell of tar from the streets:
Apple, arrival, the railroad, shoe.

The words, like bees in a sweet ink, cluster and drone,
Indifferent, indelible,
A hum and a hum:
Back stairsteps to God, ropes to the glass eye:
Vineyard, informer, the chair, the throne.

Mojo and numberless, breaths
From the wet mountains and green mouths; rustlings,
Sure sleights of hand,
The news that arrives from nowhere:
Angel, omega, silence, silence…

Charles Wright, 1945

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